Serena Williams has been listed as a headliner for this year's Australian Open. The problem is that it's not clear whether she'll be allowed to play.
Because of a recent outburst in which she threatened a line judge, Williams may be banned from at least one Grand Slam tournament. According to published reports, Williams told the judge, "You don't know me. You better be right. I swear to God I'm going to take this ball and shove it down your throat."Given that a ball going down your throat might actually kill you, the judge felt that Serena had threatened her life. Then again, Serena's from Compton, a California town that has become famous for finding creative ways to kill people. Serena does not, however, need to take "the hood" with her all the way to Australia.
To make matters more interesting, Serena recently got naked for the cover of ESPN magazine, certifying her status as an iconic and thought-provoking figure for the early 21st century. These two events, plus the fact that she just happens to be one of the most dominant female tennis players in history, makes her the kind of woman we'll all be talking about for the next 100 years.
Our great-grandkids won't be talking much about the boring apolitical figure called Michael Jordan. We'll congratulate Tiger Woods for being the first incredibly rich black man to consistently beat the crap out of the arrogant guys at the country club. Serena Williams' name, though, will come up in classes on feminist theory, history and sociology.
Like Muhammad Ali, Serena is becoming bigger than her sport, and my greatest hope is that her ability to transcend tennis is guided by a desire to serve all humanity, and not just herself. Her nude body on the cover of ESPN is her way of yelling to the world that she is more than a tennis player. I agree that she is.
Someone asked me if I think that race plays a role in the banning of Serena Williams. I say, absolutely, yes, but not in the way you may imagine. You see, race and racism permeate the fabric of our society and play a powerful role in our perceptions, actions and attitudes. Even things that appear to have nothing to do with race end up having everything to do with race.
Those who dislike Serena do not hate her for having black skin, they hate her for "acting black." The cultural norms and attitudes that Serena carries as a black woman are heavily influenced by her Compton upbringing. Serena's strong response to the official might be inappropriate to the majority of non-black Americans, but many African Americans might be more likely to understand or forgive her seemingly aggressive behavior. (My mama threatened to kill me quite a few times growing up.) This does not, in any way, imply that misbehaving is "a black thing," (we all saw John McEnroe) or that black people are more aggressive. It simply says that the method for handling disputes might vary across cultural lines.
Those who know nothing about Serena's background are not going to understand Serena and will thus disapprove of some of her behavior. Human nature dictates that we tend to dislike those who are different, which is why the officials end up hating Serena. Even before the incident took place, many officials had already found the behavior of the Williams sisters to be unacceptable, similar to the way a white school teacher from the suburbs is five times more likely to decide that a black male student has a behavioral disorder. The truth is that the world has never seen a woman like Serena Williams, and it probably never will again.
I congratulate Serena for her boldness and expression of independent thought. Simultaneously, I encourage her to show a bit more discipline on the court, since there is no need to "get gangsta" with a line judge. The woman made the best call she could, and threatening her only makes Serena look as petty, spoiled and inconsiderate as McEnroe.
That's not the Serena I, nor my grandkids, really want to remember.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Professor at Syracuse University, a leading black speaker and author of the forthcoming book, "Black American Money." To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.